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Presidents and Their Generals: An American History of Command in War

Presidents and Their Generals: An American History of Command in War by Matthew Moten. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014, 456 pp.

In a very timely book, Matthew Moten tackles the relationship between our presidents, as commanders in chief, and the generals who served them. By putting forth a premise of "continuous negotiation" (p. 3) between a president and his military commanders, the author captures the interaction between policy maker and military strategist. Throughout the book, he returns to this continuous negotiation as the touchstone for his narrative of the most important political-military relationships in our history. Moten does a masterful job of telling the stories of significant presidents and generals throughout US history and ably folds in primary sources to add depth to both the personalities and the eras he explores. Although Presidents and Their Generals is a fantastic and interesting read, it is not without flaws. The author's West Point bias (he taught history at the academy) pervades the book as he focuses almost exclusively on Army generals, and the other services get short shrift. This partiality is understandable, but an Air Force audience will feel that luminaries like Gen Curtis LeMay and even our Navy brethren have earned more than a passing mention. Additionally, Moten's assessments of the relationships during the post-Vietnam era and his recommendations fall a little flat as the book moves from military history into the political realm.

The first of the book's three parts explains how precedents were set for these relationships and puts the reader on the path of the evolution of presidents becoming our most powerful military leaders as commanders in chief. Moten sets the scene by explaining how the American Revolution and especially George Washington influenced associations between the American military and the executive branch.

The author uses classic paintings by John Trumbull as images to capture how civilian leaders (and the people they serve) see the generals and how the generals see themselves vis-à-vis civilian leaders. Since the most important military leader of this era subsequently becomes president, the early part of this portion of the book concentrates more on the power that Congress held over military affairs. It is easy to forget that the balance of such affairs in our country is supposed to mirror the checks and balances of our political affairs. The first part takes us to the beginning of the Civil War, and Moten stresses the importance of how professionalizing the Army's officer corps--primarily with the rise of West Point--influenced the linkage between presidents and generals. As he points out, the lines are necessarily blurred between the policies laid out by the presidents and the strategies that the generals must use to realize the goals of the executive branch. One feels that a mandatory quotation from Carl von Clausewitz belongs here, and neither Moten nor I disappoint: "War is not a mere act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political activity by other means" (p. 172). The author makes the point extremely well by consistently showing how ineffective either partner can be by failing to grasp this aphorism.

Moten hits his stride in the second part, which, by itself, makes the book worth reading. He shows a master historian's hand by weaving in wonderful anecdotes and primary sources about Lincoln and his generals. Even after the passage of 150 years, readers can feel Lincoln's frustration with Maj Gen George McClellan and his refusal to act; moreover, readers root for both Lincoln and Grant even though the outcome is already well known. During this presidency, the role of commander in chief comes into its own, and Moten shows us how the conflict shaped both the presidency and the nation. Lincoln's use of his commanding generals as implements of his policy reverberated throughout American history. The author, however, does miss an opportunity to reinforce his point as he skips over the Spanish-American War and President William McKinley's deliberate decision to choose a former Confederate general, Joseph Wheeler, to lead the Army. Part two continues with brilliance, covering the unique mandate that Gen John Pershing enjoyed during World War I and delving into the relationship between two great leaders in FDR and Gen George Marshall during World War II. Here, Moten's strengths as a writer and historian are on display as he uses these great wars to show the back and forth of this "continuous negotiation" between presidents and generals in its highest form.

Part three juxtaposes the successes in collaboration of the previous part with the perils of mistrust between presidents and their commanders. Truman must deal with a rogue MacArthur in the Pacific, eventually firing a near demigod who then sadly sinks from the scene after a series of failed political ventures. Kennedy loses trust in his generals after the debacle of the Bay of Pigs and brings in an outsider, retired general Maxwell Taylor, who pushes a doctrine that drives policy during the Vietnam conflict. Moten then ends this part with an examination of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is rightfully critical of the administrations and their generals for their many missteps, but his critique of Colin Powell seems almost personal. Moten goes to great lengths to point out his shortcomings as an Army leader, and his criticism of the Powell Doctrine stops just short of referring to him as a modern-day McClellan. This part also blatantly omits a discussion of the Kosovo war and Operation Allied Force, which would have offered an exceptional opportunity to explore both a significant armed conflict fought almost exclusively from the air and the relationship between Clinton and Gen Wesley Clark.

Ultimately, Presidents and Their Generals is a tremendous read, and I highly recommend it. The author's writing style and deft historical storytelling make the book engaging and enjoyable--particularly the portions on the Civil War and World War II. Moten's minor missteps are easily overshadowed by the quality of the writing and relevance of the topic.

MSgt Yann W. Martin, USAF
Ramstein Air Base, Germany


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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